Recently, beautiful Vienna has seen the birth of a new church that could be dubbed a blasphemy in stone and cement. To compare it to Chartres is a form of desecration.
Culture and art are blossoms of the earth in which they were born. When man’s moral life degenerates to such an extent that the difference between good and evil has been blurred through a systematic relativistic education, it is inevitable that the soil on which authentic culture can blossom no longer has the sap necessary for great achievements (granted that exceptions are always possible).
A concrete example is called for: Music lovers will all agree that Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is an operatic masterpiece with few equals. An opera is not only heard; it is also seen, and the set should match the poetry of the work. But cultural decadence — a punishment for immorality — has today reached such a pitch that I just heard that in the Salzburg Festival 2001 performance of this immortal masterpiece, the traditional lovely baroque castle was replaced by a bare room in which the only things visible were two doors marked “Men” and “Women.” Vulgarity and culture can never be bedfellows, and the growing taste for coarseness signals that in many instances, we can no longer speak of contemporary culture. We live in a time of anti-culture. Instead of refinement and noble polish, some actually relish whatever is indecorous and rowdy. Instead of appealing to what is best in man, instead of being a Sursum Corda, it caters to the lowest animal instincts in us. This is the death of authentic culture.
Civilization is animated by the spirit of parsimony: Whatever is not absolutely necessary is eliminated. Civilization unifies and simplifies. Culture, on the other hand, thrives on the principle of superabundance. Shakespeare formulated this truth in his own inimitable fashion: “Allow not nature more than nature needs, man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s…” (King Lear).
Let us compare a meal eaten from a coarse earthen pot with a meal marked by culture: with a lovely tablecloth, silver (or even golden cutlery), a flower arrangement, and the food served on a beautiful platter, so artistically arranged that one hesitates to destroy this culinary masterpiece. It is not pragmatically necessary, but it is beautiful, and beauty is its own justification. Culture mirrors the generosity evident in God’s creation: Millions of sperm are ejected, but only one of them will fecundate an egg. Christ’s first miracle exemplifies admirably what we mean by the principle of superabundance: The guests at Cana already had had plenty of wine; pragmatically speaking, more wine was not “necessary.” But Christ chose to change large urns of water not only into wine but one of superior quality. The great mistake we make in our pragmatic approach to life is to believe that the importance of something is to be measured by its practical use. It was the great Pascal who wrote that he was not a pragmatist because he could go further without it.
I dare assert that in society today, culture is in danger of being choked by technology. A case in point is contemporary education. When I was a child, a student was supposed to have a well-rounded education, learning science, mathematics, at least one other language, literature, history, geography, philosophy, and fine arts. Throughout my teaching career, it became increasingly evident that modern “educators” viewed college exclusively as preparation to make a living. In many universities, the core curriculum was either severely curtailed or even totally abolished, and finally a student could graduate from college with no knowledge whatsoever of history, philosophy, literature, the fine arts, and geography. A friend told me that his acquaintance with what is called the humanities is in fact nihil.
It would do no good to ask him who wrote the Divine Comedy or what the greatest dramas of Shakespeare are. When it comes to music, his ignorance touches on the pathetic. Now most anyone goes to college and can graduate being an ignoramus — totally unacquainted with the great traditions of Western culture. The problem is aggravated by the fact that most of these graduates become successful businessmen and soon make an impressive amount of money. They feel they have achieved their goals; their horizon is limited to money-making, having fun, watching sports on television, and taking it easy.